NASA's K-10 rover maneuvers around the Roverscape, a pebbly field at the Ames Research Center full of obstacles such as boulders, fake rocks, and steep slopes. Enlarge

MOUNTAIN VIEW, California – On a pebbled field built next to a parking lot, a small rover scoots forward and expels a long sheet of polyimide plastic from its backside, the third film the probe has deployed. The sheets are arranged in a Y-shaped formation that simulates a radio antenna on the moon.

No one is around to direct the seemingly autonomous robot. But the entire operation is being remote-controlled by Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano, who is flying 400 kilometers overhead in the International Space Station.

This is the second in a series of tests at NASA’s Ames Research Center aimed at taking the next giant leap in humans and robots working together. A technology known as telerobotics may one day allow astronauts to stay in orbit while guiding robots in real time on the surface of another planet. It will let humans explore new places, including perhaps unreachable locations such as the boiling valleys of Venus or the icy oceans of Europa, while lowering the risk to their lives. With a human mind in the loop, the robots will be able to make much quicker decisions and overcome obstacles to range farther than ever before.

“This is a glimpse of the future of space exploration,” said astronomer Jack Burns of the University of Colorado, during the test on July 26.

During the test at Ames, NASA’s K-10 rover is outfitted with an array of sensors. The 1.4-meter-tall robot has several cameras and an overhead LIDAR scanner to build a 3-D map of its environment, and a sophisticated suite of software to help it get around. Parmitano isn’t driving the probe with a joystick up there. He punches instructions on a laptop, telling the robot to go from point A to point B, and K-10 figures out the best path to avoid obstacles and lay down the radio antenna.

In Burns’ vision, within 10 years, astronauts in orbit around the moon could be deploying a much larger version of this radio telescope on the lunar far side. With such an instrument, astronomers could glimpse some of the earliest periods in our universe’s history, when the first stars and galaxies formed. Currently, both ground- and space-based telescopes experience too much radio noise from human technology and the Earth’s ionosphere to get a clear picture of this era. Because the moon acts as a giant shield, the lunar far side is the only place in the inner solar system quiet enough to see this cosmic dawn. Telerobotics would allow NASA to build a radio telescope on the moon for cheaper than it might otherwise.

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